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Managing high blood pressure

Learn about high blood pressure (hypertension), what you can do to lower it and how to understand blood pressure readings.

an image of senior man getting his blood pressure checked

In this article

What is blood pressure?

Your heart pumps blood through your arteries around your body. 

Each time your heart pumps, the blood pushes against the artery walls. 

The strength of this 'pushing' is your blood pressure (pēhanga toto).

Your blood pressure changes throughout the day.

It's lower when you're asleep or relaxing and goes up when you move around. It can also be increased by stress or extreme emotions, and stimulants like nicotine or caffeine.

Some people's blood pressure stays above the recommended levels. This is called high blood pressure, or hypertension. 

How is blood pressure measured?

Blood pressure is measured using a machine called a blood pressure monitor (sometimes called a blood pressure machine).

A cuff (thick band) is put around your upper arm. This cuff is attached to a blood pressure monitor which measures the pressure inside your arteries. 

When the monitor is switched on the cuff tightens and then slowly loosens again. It is quick and painless. 

At the end, the monitor will give a blood pressure reading.

A blood pressure reading contains two numbers and will be written as a figure like 120/75 (this is said '120 over 75'.)

The first (top) number is the pressure when your heart beats (systolic pressure). The second (bottom) number is when your heart relaxes (diastolic pressure).

arm with a blood pressure cuff wrapped around the top of it. Blood pressure monitor showing systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings.

During a blood pressure check, a blood pressure cuff is wrapped around your arm so a blood pressure monitor can measure your systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

Where can I get my blood pressure checked?

An image of  a man getting his blood pressure checked

You can get a blood pressure check at your GP practice and at most local pharmacies. You can also buy a blood pressure monitor from most pharmacies to use at home.

More about home blood pressure monitoring

What is a normal blood pressure reading?

For most people an ideal blood pressure is 120/80 or lower.

For people already on high blood pressure medication, the target blood pressure is 130/80 or below.

However, the blood pressure that is 'ideal' for you depends on many factors, including your overall risk of heart attack and stroke.

Ask your doctor or nurse about your target blood pressure next time you visit.

Image of a blood pressure chart indicating normal readings

What is high blood pressure (hypertension)?

High blood pressure is when your blood pressure is regularly higher than the ideal level or higher than the level recommended by your doctor.

It needs to be diagnosed by a healthcare professional.

The clinical term for high blood pressure is hypertension. 

A single high blood pressure reading doesn't necessarily mean you have hypertension.

You have hypertension if your blood pressure stays high for three separate readings, on three separate occasions, over at least three months.

Sometimes people's blood pressure goes up because they're worried about having it taken by the nurse or doctor. 

If this is a problem, the doctor may get you to do blood pressure readings at home or order a 24-hour monitor to help confirm you have high blood pressure.

Conditions caused by high blood pressure

Over time, high blood pressure can damage your arteries and increase your risk of:

  • heart attack
  • stroke
  • heart failure
  • aneurysm
  • kidney failure 
  • dementia
  • eye damage.

What causes high blood pressure? 

For most people, there isn't a single cause of high blood pressure. However, there are some risk factors that make high blood pressure more likely. 

Some risk factors for high blood pressure you can manage. These include:

Processed foods and salt
Many processed foods include a lot of salt which can contribute to high blood pressure.

Any amount or type of alcohol increases your risk of high blood pressure. The more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk.

Being overweight increases your risk of having high blood pressure. Even losing just a few kilograms can lower your blood pressure.

Not moving enough 
Moving more and sitting less will lower your blood pressure.

The hormones released in your body when you’re stressed increase your blood pressure. Researchers are still trying to understand the exact link between long-term high blood pressure and ongoing stress.

Sleep apnoea
Having obstructive sleep apnoea increases your risk of high blood pressure. Your doctor will advise you on how to best manage this condition.

Other risk factors include:

If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, you’re twice as likely to get high blood pressure.

Kidney disease or other glandular problems 
Sometimes high blood pressure is caused by other conditions, including some that affect your kidneys, arteries, heart or endocrine (gland) system.

Getting older
Blood pressure naturally increases with age.

Taking certain medications
Ask your pharmacist about the possible side-effects of any medication you take.

Having a family member with high blood pressure 
High blood pressure runs in families so find out if your parents or siblings have had a problem with it.

Symptoms of high blood pressure

High blood pressure is often called the 'silent killer' because in most cases it doesn’t have any symptoms.

The only way to find out if you have it is to get your blood pressure checked by your doctor, nurse or pharmacist, or to check it yourself with a home monitor.

How to lower blood pressure

An image of 3 older women walking on the beach

There are lots of things you can do to lower your blood pressure.

If your doctor has given you blood pressure medication, take it as prescribed. However, you'll also need to follow a heart-healthy lifestyle.

The following lifestyle changes can help lower blood pressure:

Even if you haven't been diagnosed with hypertension, following these tips will be good for your blood pressure and good for your heart.

6 ways to lower your blood pressure

Blood pressure medication

Your doctor may suggest you take medication to lower your blood pressure. Taking this medication as directed will help lower your chance of having a heart attack or stroke.

Medications used to treat high blood pressure include:

Read about other heart disease risk factors